Disappearance of Chinese defence chief sheds light on PLA’s opaque nature, say diplomats and analysts

Li Shangfu

18th September 2023 – (Beijing) The recent disappearance of Chinese Defence Chief Li Shangfu has shed light on the complex and secretive workings of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), according to diplomats and analysts.

Reuters reported on Friday (15th September) that Li is currently under investigation for his involvement in corrupt procurement practices during his previous role. Alongside Li, eight other senior officials are also being investigated. However, no official explanation has been given regarding Li’s current whereabouts.

In the Chinese system, the Minister of National Defence holds significantly less power compared to the US Defence Secretary and their international counterparts. The position is primarily diplomatic and ceremonial, lacking direct command authority.

Nevertheless, Li Shangfu is one of the six military officials serving under Commander-in-Chief and President Xi Jinping in the core Central Military Commission (CMC). He also holds the position of State Councillor, which outranks a regular cabinet minister.

According to military attaches and analysts, Li, an aerospace engineer who previously worked in China’s satellite program, was considered a technocrat who played a role in implementing Xi’s vision for modernising the PLA.

The PLA serves as the armed wing of the ruling Communist Party and, as stated in the Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military, “does not directly serve the state but is rather under the direct control of the party”.

Throughout his career, Li would have gone through vetting processes to ensure his absolute loyalty to the party and Xi Jinping.

The PLA maintains a cadre of political commissars who work alongside the command chain, responsible for ensuring loyalty, unity, and morale. This commissar system lacks clear equivalents in non-Communist militaries.

The CMC serves as the party’s highest-level decision-making body on military affairs. Since becoming CMC Chairman, Xi Jinping has implemented multiple reforms aimed at reducing PLA autonomy and strengthening party control over the military, according to the Pentagon report released in November 2022. This adds an additional layer of opacity to the already secretive military, as noted by foreign defence attaches analysing the PLA.

The PLA is already the world’s largest fighting force and continues to modernise and enhance its capabilities. As it incorporates new weapons systems, its structure and operations are evolving. In recent years, new unified regional commands and a Strategic Support Force, responsible for space and cyber warfare capabilities, have been established. Li previously served as the deputy commander of this force in 2016.

As the PLA’s power and influence expand, foreign militaries are keen to gain a better understanding of its functioning and the strategic intentions of its leadership. These efforts underpin military-to-military diplomacy.

The disappearance of Li has raised concerns among diplomats and analysts that China’s military outreach is being overshadowed by internal security measures.

U.S. defence officials are eager to restore regular communication channels with their Chinese counterparts amidst regional tensions. However, Li, who faced U.S. sanctions in 2018 for purchasing Russian weapons, declined formal discussions with U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin during a meeting in Singapore in June. Following talks between White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Malta, U.S. officials reported “limited” signs of a potential thaw in communication. Even if China appoints a new defense minister and allows a meeting with Austin, analysts suggest that a more senior figure, such as CMC vice-chairman and close ally of Xi Jinping, Zhang Youxia, would be on a more equal footing. Given the current upheaval, the international security conference that Li was scheduled to host in October is now being closely monitored.

If Li does not appear at the upcoming Xiangshan Forum, Beijing’s major defence diplomacy event, it may indicate that he is still under investigation. Diplomats anticipate that China will hold the forum in the latter half of next month, but invitations have not been sent out yet, which is unusual for China.

The Xiangshan Forum is considered Beijing’s equivalent of the Shangri La Dialogue and serves as a high-level conference where China aims to shape global discussions on defense and security issues.

During the last in-person forum in 2019, over 530 defence officials and scholars, including defense ministers from 23 countries, attended. Typically, the Chinese defense minister delivers the keynote speech and meets with various delegations during the forum.